BC Wildfire update on 14 major Okanagan blazes

Watch the media briefing on the current fire situation in the Okanagan.

No structures have been lost in the 14 wildfires still burning along the Okanagan corridor.

Glen Burgess, with the BC Wildfire Service, held a press conference in Penticton Friday to talk about the provincial response to these blazes, many of which were sparked by lightning on Tuesday evening.

“When these fires occurred the Kamloops Fire Centre, in conjunction with the Penticton Fire Zone, sent all available resources to respond. As well in conjunction with the local fire departments and local governments, that is where the initial response came from.”

The wildfires burning from Okanagan Mountain Park to West Kelowna and down to Peachland range from small spot fires with three-person crews to the larger fires consuming more resources and energy.

RELATED: Garnet Valley Road in Summerland blocked as crews fight wildfire

More than 200 BC Wildfire personnel are working these fires, along with 20 rotary aircraft (helicopters), fixed-wing air-tankers and heavy equipment.

“We are not in a situation where we are not able to get resources, it is just the timing to get recourses. B.C. is a large province and we are getting resources from all over. It just takes time, but they are coming and we are deploying them on the fire line into priority areas,” said Burgess.

The public and the media have had issues communicating with BC Wildfire over the last few days; however, Burgess says they are working to improve the situation, update maps and information.

“Our biggest thing is making sure all local governments, First Nations, fire departments and media are getting accurate and timely information.”

Some residents of Kelowna have been critical of BC Wildfire’s response to the Good Creek fire.

RELATED: Okanagan Mountain Park wildfire “stable” this morning

“People are reliving the past with that fire and rightly so,” he said. “The reality is the fuel type there is completely different than it has been in the past. It is no longer standing timber, it was severely burnt a number of years ago. While the fire is moving around it is not moving with any great spread.”

The blaze never advanced to the north on Thursday, toward Lakeshore Road in Kelowna. BC Wildfire was on scene with ground crews and air support, stated Burgess.

“At the end of the day we need to prioritize our resources to where the actual high risk values are threatened, and at that time there was no high risk values immediately there versus the other fires,” said Burgess.

With limited resources, BC Wildfire assigns crews where the immediate threat is.

Life and property are the number one values BC Wildfire seeks to protect, from homes to government structures to cellular networks and power lines. The Good Creek fire did not threaten any of what BC Wildfire deems life and property.

“That includes our own human lives and the risk to our responders is always something, and we need to manage that and when we get unexpected or radical weather changes it puts our people at risk and that is a concern,” he said.

Burgess stressed that those who are critical of the response to the Good Creek wildfire need to understand that resources are needed where the greatest risk is.

“That might not be what they want to hear, because to them their home is the greatest risk. They see a fire two or three miles away and to them, they think it is at risk,” he said. “We look at what we know about weather, topography and fire behaviour; we don’t feel that risk is imminent and we do have risk elsewhere.”

There were also reports the Mount Eneas and Munro Lake wildfire merged Thursday night, but this is not the case.

If the fires did merge Burgess said it might not be problematic because it could reduce the perimeter they need to work.

The biggest challenge right now for crews is the wind, the most significant being at night during down-shift winds which occurs often in the Okanagan Valley.

“At night when it is dark, and we don’t have resources because it’s dangerous we are getting fire spread downslope at night. They look really bad, and can potentially be really bad,” explained Burgess.

The last few days of hot temperatures with low humidity and strong winds have made the fuels susceptible to the ideal burning conditions for a fire.

Burgess also fears an unpredicted weather event could cause more issues with the fires.

Crews have made good progress on the wildfires but there still is a long way to go. Cooler temperatures mixed with some humidity on Friday are favourable conditions to get ahead on these blazes.

RELATED: Cooler temps today, but no rain in forecast until August

Crews are working to makes sure the highway remains open, although terrain in the area has caused some issues.

Burgess stated steep rocky cliffs have prove difficult and dangerous to navigate.

“Terrain is an issue. We can’t work on every piece of terrain,” he said. “ If it’s not safe to do so, we can’t out people on the rock bluffs. It’s frustrating to see the fire burning and not be able to tackle it.”

As far as evacuations alerts and orders that came down in the Peachland and West Kelowna area overnight, Burgess said BC Wildfire does not make those calls. Local governments look to the BC Wildfire Service for recommendations and then make the call to evacuate or not.

“Fires can look more dramatic at night than it really is, and local governments make decisions with the safety of the people in mind,” Burgess said, adding that some orders might seem like an overreaction but if they didn’t make that call then it would be a different conversation.

BC Wildfire crews continue to work these fires and will have more resources returning from Quebec next week to help out.

Luckily, there have been no injuries of firefighters in these fires, said Burgess.

“Even last (year) we had an extremely low injury rate in some really volatile fires. Something we take very seriously is the protection and the safety of our workers.”

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